Modi and the threat to Indian democracy

6 May 2024
Sagar Sanyal
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during celebrations marking the country's Independence Day in New Delhi in August 2023 PHOTO: AFP

The Indian national elections began on 19 April. With close to 1 billion people voting across 28 states and eight territories, polling is staggered and will be completed in early June. The far-right Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) is likely to win, giving incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi his third straight five-year term in office.

Yet for all the talk about the country being “the world’s largest democracy”, the process is in some ways hollow and shambolic. The Modi government has used its control of the state to persecute opposition politicians. And a flood of corporate money backing Modi’s party makes the contest very one-sided.

The chief minister of Delhi, a major opposition politician, was arrested earlier in the year, hobbling his party’s campaign. Many other prominent opposition politicians have been arrested or harassed over the past couple of years on pretexts such as tax fraud or corruption. A couple dozen such politicians have switched parties to join the BJP and—to no-one’s surprise—their tax investigations went into hibernation once they jumped ship.

The Congress party, the largest opposition party nationally, claims that its bank accounts have been frozen, disrupting election campaign spending. On the other hand, two months before the elections, the Supreme Court forced the government to disclose information about parties’ use of “electoral bonds” for financing. The BJP introduced this opaque mechanism in 2017 to allow big corporate donors to give money without public disclosure. It turns out that the BJP is getting by far the largest share of such shadow funding.

Many of the donors turned out to be people and companies the BJP had been targeting through the tax agencies. If they coughed up enough money for BJP’s campaign coffers, the investigations magically stopped. Modi has also pushed the Electoral Commission to institute the unusually long election campaign knowing that other parties would run out of funds sooner than the BJP.

But the threat to democracy goes beyond fair elections. Since 2014, Modi has attacked the independence of the judiciary and the civil service through changes to legislation and norms of executive practice. And his party and government have harassed and arrested prominent activists and journalists in retaliation for anti-government protests or critical media reports. In fact, since Modi was first elected in 2014, many prominent critical journalists and social activists have been murdered by far-right organisations associated with but operating at arm’s length from the BJP.

What’s more, big media are pro-Modi and echo BJP talking points—operating as loyal propagandists and reflecting support for Modi among media magnates.

The government has continually pushed anti-Muslim chauvinism. It revoked the autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, and split it into two “union territories”, which are more closely administered by the central government. It introduced anti-Muslim laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. Under Modi, BJP politicians and Hindu religious leaders have repeatedly been filmed inciting crowds to violence against Muslims, spreading conspiracies about them and calling for their ethnic cleansing.

In BJP strongholds, such as the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, there has been a spate of beatings and lynchings of Muslims carried out by vigilante groups abetted by police and sometimes with their cooperation. In Gujarat, the state in which Modi’s political career was launched, Muslims are ghettoised, unable to buy property in Hindu neighbourhoods, afraid to venture out of their neighbourhoods for fear of harassment or lynching by vigilantes.

How did India, which has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, get here?

The story begins with the National Volunteers’ Organisation (Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sang, RSS), a fascist organisation established in 1925 with the ideology of Hindutva (literally “Hindu-ness”), a virulent form of Hindu nationalism. The RSS combined the conservatism of elite Hindu society with an attempt to imitate the ideologies and movements associated with Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

Vinayak Savarkar, the founding ideologue of Hindutva in the early 1920s, pictured India as the land of the “Hindu race”. The Hindu nation, he wrote, could lead the world, but only once it became strong again and was purged of foreign ideas and domination. In particular, the target was Muslims, who were depicted as an internal enemy that weakened the Hindu race for a thousand years. In 1939, Savarkar enthused about Hitler purging Germany of Jews and wanted Hindus to show the same race pride against Muslims.

B.S. Moonje, an influential early figure in Hindutva, toured Italy, met Mussolini and inspected the fascist youth and militia. Keshav Hedgewar, founder of the RSS, created the group’s organisational apparatus, including the branches in which members train in martial arts and are taught the doctrines of Hindutva. They develop full-time propagandists to build the organisation. By the time Hedgewar died in 1940, there were between 500 and 1,000 branches around the country, with 100,000 members. By 1973, when the group’s second supreme leader, M.S. Golwalkar, died, the RSS had 1 million members. Today it claims 5 million.

From the beginning, RSS activists were predominantly urban middle-class people from an upper-caste background (the caste hierarchy, which is like a hereditary class system, is a mainstay of Hindu conservatism). They were lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, shopkeepers and merchants. From the beginning, they had supporters among rich and powerful people—big business owners, big landowners, Hindu princes, army officers and judges. These establishment supporters bankrolled the organisation and ensured that the activists’ violence was tolerated by the elites.

Their vigilantism is no secret in India. When the British Raj ended in 1947 and the territory was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the RSS carried out pogroms against Muslims. An RSS activist assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. The RSS led “communal riots” in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. In India “communalism” means pitting religious or ethnic communities against one another—like Hindus against Muslims. That whole time, the fascists were tolerated by the elites and the upper middle classes and grew among them.

Yet they mostly had very little influence in mass electoral politics. It was only in the late 1980s that they began to get a sizeable vote.

An important factor in their burgeoning success in this field was the decline of the Congress party as an electoral force and as the dominant political vehicle of the capitalist class. Congress, led by a family dynasty for generations, dominated national elections for decades after independence, but it began losing electoral support from the late 1960s.

Into the resulting vacuum advanced a range of smaller parties, each with a regional base. By the mid-1980s Congress was embroiled in corruption scandals and a crisis of leadership after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the head of the family dynasty. It seemed a sinking ship, and sections of the big capitalists were looking for a party whose electoral star was rising.

Enter the BJP, which is the main political front group of the RSS. The RSS networks among business, police, judges and lawyers create a bubble of impunity for Hindutva activists in a range of local strongholds. In that bubble, Hindutva vigilante groups (at arm’s length from the RSS and the BJP) use communal campaigns to gain a voter base far larger than their activist ranks. The RSS-BJP leverage the voter base to expand their influence among the top end of society. It has been a spiral of growing influence ever since the 1990s.

Narendra Modi has been intimately involved in the whole process. A creature of the RSS, Modi has been a member since he was a child and became a full-time organiser for the group. In the mid-1980s, the RSS moved Modi into the BJP, where he was an important figure in two communalist campaigns that were pivotal in creating and hardening a Hindutva pole in mass politics.

First was the “birthplace of Ram” campaign of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which targeted a sixteenth-century mosque that was claimed to have been built on the exact birthplace of a Hindu god. Hindutva activists destroyed the mosque in 1992 and killed hundreds of Muslims in related clashes. At the time, Modi was a behind-the-scenes campaign organiser. This year, Modi inaugurated a Ram temple on the site of the destroyed mosque. It was an enormous media spectacle that functioned as the unofficial opening act of his electoral campaign.

Second was the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which Hindutva activists killed 2,000 Muslims. This time, Modi was in front of the cameras as the state’s chief minister. Both campaigns mobilised support among a large layer of Hindu society.

The fascist activists had to demonstrate that they spoke for “the people” in some way, that they had social licence to act above the law. But they also view themselves as the political right’s vanguard, who must lead much more extreme actions than the mass of Hindu society would demand or carry out on their own.

They are two-faced about their political role and outlook. When speaking to the hard right, they boast of killing Muslims. When engaging more moderate voters, they deny their role in atrocities, and shift responsibility to “spontaneous Hindu rage” while adding that the rage is justified given the Muslim “threat”, even if they might condemn “excesses” committed by Hindus. This doublespeak is effective because of the RSS’s influence among “respectable people”—news presenters in big media, the police, judges and lawyers. When all the respectable people echo RSS (and Modi’s) talking points about “spontaneous Hindu rage” or “the Muslims started it”, when the judges conclude that Modi as chief minister was not responsible for the Gujarat pogroms—then it must be true!

While he was chief minister from 2001 to 2014, Modi surrounded himself with a growing layer of capitalists from Gujarat and its neighbouring states in western India. They included the relatively new big shots such as Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, and old capitalist dynasties such as the Tatas and Birlas, big shots since the 1800s. Modi’s attraction was his ability to deliver for big business—to get away with things by hook or by crook—and to keep winning elections. And he greatly rewarded his corporate backers with profitable deals.

By the 2014 national elections, when Modi contended for the prime ministership, he had enough corporate backing to vastly outspend the Congress. With its huge pile of establishment funding, the hard right BJP has grown to dominate the mass media. Neither left-wing social movements nor mainstream liberal actors have been able to build an alternative political pole to rally progressives.

That brings us back to the question of how the far right has pushed its agenda since Modi’s 2014 victory. Put simply, the small cog of fascist activists moves the bigger cog of a mass voter base to turn the allegiances of leading capitalists firmly to the BJP. Society moves in a far-right direction chosen by a minority of organised fascists and to the benefit of the capitalist class, under the ideological cover of “the Hindu majority”.

Incidentally, its claim to speak for this “Hindu majority” is itself an electoral distortion. The BJP received 31 percent of the vote in 2014 and 37 percent in 2019. But given how these votes are geographically concentrated, the BJP nevertheless receives a large majority of seats in parliament, enabling it to rule with few coalition constraints. Regardless of these details, the political supremacy of the BJP cannot be minimised by fussing over voting percentages.

India’s democracy and its non-Hindu populations are under threat from the Modi regime and the BJP. But the source of the threat is not simply the government. It is a mass fascist network of organisations, rooted in the RSS and deeply embedded in layers of the ruling class and upper middle classes through ties developed over decades.

The networks, held together by a mix of ideological agreement and personal gain, exist among police, army officers, the civil service, judges, lawyers, business owners, the mass media, criminals and vigilantes. The networks are linked and cultivated by RSS activists, whose tasks are executed by Hindutva vigilante groups.

These networks among people at the top of society must be broken and disorganised. The fascist organisations and vigilante groups of the RSS and its offspring cannot be allowed to exist. Anything short of that—like a mere electoral defeat for the BJP—will be just a temporary setback for Indian fascism.

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